Ubuntu Means You’re Never Alone

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Rustic chairs, wooden tables and bricked walls; there are Singer sewing machines bordering the sides of the café and the familiar whiff of caffeine embraces us mid-day. Murmurs of different languages (mostly Korean) blend into one as relationships of all sorts are deepened this Sunday afternoon – there are lovers, friends, sisters, colleagues and families. Right here, right now in this instant, we share this space and this moment. Imagine the possibilities in this instant where strangers are brought into common space so that for once in our lives when our steps are in sync, our breaths in harmony, paths crossed. This piece is about how moments like this one string together one after another in our lives as testament that we are all connected.

Waves of inspiration from an ongoing online self-compassion course brought me to my recent read, The Book of Joy by The Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams. The insight exchanged by two most influential spiritual masters of our time affirms that the distractions of our secondary differences are just that, distractions. The secondary differences that are our nationality, ethnicity, race, gender or how we look and speak; differences that disappear when we don’t only look at a person but experience the person. These traits we think define and divide us are distracting us from the truth about unity in our common humanity.

Consciously blinding the secondary differences, what is left when we look at one another is the same human body, human brain, human heart; the same human frailties and vulnerabilities. Lending from the Archbishop’s wisdom, Ubuntu is a South African ideology that recognises our solidarity in humaneness. Indeed, where we stop comparing and competing our suffering and struggles against each other, we realise there is no ‘harder’ or ‘more stressful’, there is just ‘hard’ and ‘stressful’. We share the same fundamental desire to be joyful and avoid suffering, an innate pursuit that transcends what tries to separate us. In truth, we are together, each living out the same human experience that is imperfect, winding and impermanent by nature.

In the words of the Archbishop, “A person is a person through other persons” and no story we tell ourselves about how we came to be is a story with a single character in isolation. Each of them with the imprints of many others. Who we are is constantly tried, test and affirmed or challenged by those around us, each contributing to the moulding process that makes us us. It is the strength of the secondary differences that it sometimes takes a major disaster for followers of different faiths or people from different countries to come together and see that in the end, we are all human brothers and sisters. The Holiness the Dalai Lama describes the antidote as “a sense of oneness of all 7 billion human beings – irrespective of our beliefs, we are all the same human beings who all want a happy life.”

Growing up in a culture where independence meant going alone strong and armouring up against vulnerability, the true internalisation of Ubuntu starts with greeting my big human family. It starts with the recognition of our interdependence – unlearning the modern trance, the relentless march and the endless comparison and competition. Martin Luther King Jr puts it rightly that we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools. I am mindful of the suffering that humanity takes the toll of collectively today – the refugee crisis, the rising suicide rates, the political amnesia that hurts us; all of which that is reason for us to grieve. There are, though, more reasons to celebrate, as we are 7-billion strong in our capacity for love, great devotions and courageous pursuits.

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